Sarah Cole and her colleagues in the editorial department were nearly three years into their latest animated movie, and they were ready to release it to the world.
They had shepherded the project from script to storyboard, from animatics to voice acting, from layout to animation to music to sound effects to visual effects and on and on and on. They had watched each frame over and over again, in excruciating detail, to make sure everything was coming together.
In December, they finally let it go.
“We were all a little bit jaded because we’d seen it so many times,” said Cole, who earned her BS in media studies from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “But, at the same time, we were like, ‘I think this might do OK.’”
The movie, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” has done a little better than OK. Through last weekend, it had made more than $356 million at the box office worldwide, nearly quadrupling its budget. “Spider-Verse” has also been a critical darling, earning a 97 percent rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and winning Best Animated Feature from 12 different organizations, including the Golden Globe Awards and Critics’ Choice Awards.
On Sunday, it won the coveted Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Cole doesn’t get an Oscars invite – “I’m so below the cutoff line,” she said – but she was in attendance when “Spider-Verse” took home the top prize and six others at the Annie Awards, which recognize excellence in animation, on Feb. 2 in Los Angeles.
“None of us thought it would do anything this crazy,” Cole said. “I truly believe that’s just a symptom of us being too close to it and not able to see how groundbreaking and different it was to anything that’s out there right now. Super surreal.”
“Spider-Verse” was Cole’s biggest project to date. The St. Louis native worked on the editing teams of two major studio animation releases prior – “Free Birds” in 2013 and “Rock Dog” in 2016 – but they paled in comparison to the ambition of “Spider-Verse.”
As first assistant editor on the movie, it was Cole’s job to take all the bits and pieces from all the disparate departments that go into making an animated feature – storyboard, music, sound, animation, layout, etc. – and coordinate them in such a way that they’re ready to go when the lead editor or associate editors need them.
She called herself the “hub” of the editorial department.
“Animation is very technical,” Cole said. “You’re creating the worlds, the characters, the style, all of it. That’s lovely because it kind of gives you a sandbox. But at the same time, it’s kind of daunting because if we want to do one small scene, we have to generate the entire world for that scene. Specifically, with ‘Spider-Verse,’ what was really challenging was it’s so stylized and so hyper focused on making it look like a comic book come to life. We sort of reinvented the wheel simultaneously while pushing the train down the tracks. By the end of it, we were working 14- to 16-hour days, seven days a week.”
Cole has always displayed a penchant for splicing together things to make a cohesive whole, whether it was short films or family photo montages. She first went to the University of Missouri–Columbia to major in computer science but soon found it wasn’t for her.
“I was like, ‘I’m pretty nerdy, but this is too far,’” Cole said. “I had to reel it back a little bit.”
Her roommate planted the idea in Cole’s head that she could make a living out of all those little editing projects she was doing just for fun. MU didn’t offer a degree in film production at the time, so Cole took a semester off to intern at an editing company in Dallas and consider her next steps.
When the internship ended, the company offered her a full-time job. She said she’d love to accept, but she really wanted to get her degree first. That’s when UMSL’s media studies program came into the picture. She graduated in August 2008.
“It was at that time of burgeoning streaming content, online media, a fusion of everything was happening,” Cole said. “It ended up being kind of perfect.”
After graduation, Cole went back to the company she’d interned for, working out of its Santa Monica, California, location. She started on commercials and even chanced into her first on-screen spot when T-Mobile used her picture in an ad.
Her next role came in “Spider-Verse.” Again, kind of by accident.
Before the final voices are dubbed in, the editing team records “scratch” dialogue as a placeholder. The filmmakers liked one of Cole’s takes, so they kept it in the final version.
Cole is “Brooklyn Friend No. 4.” She’s still getting used to hearing her voice come out of a cartoon character’s mouth.
“It’s super trippy,” Cole said. “I have a bunch of friends that know, and they all went and cheered when the pink-haired girl started talking, and everyone was looking at them like they were crazy. I saw it here, and then, when I came home for Christmas, I took my parents to see it. They definitely got a kick out of it.”
Growing up, Cole loved watching Saturday morning cartoons with her father. She sees her career as a logical extension.
“Animation is the perfect fusion of my nerd brain and my creative brain because you get to do the tech part of it but you still get to create,” Cole said. “It really just hones in on all the things I love to do.”